NEW YORK — After tonight’s official unveiling, Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator (BF+DA) could very well serve as a prototype of a high-tech interdisciplinary workshop for other schools and cities.
Located in the Pfizer building in South Williamsburg, the 21,000-square-foot facility aims to help high-potential design start-ups establish viable businesses. Sixteen entrepreneurs, or “venture fellows,” are currently based at the accelerator, and 12 more will be added in the months ahead. Five research fellows are also exploring the interaction of fashion and technology including 3-D printing, wearables, sensors and other subjects. If all goes according to plan, the venture fellows — most of whom who have been in business for a year or two — will each see annual sales jump from $30,000 to $300,000 or beyond, according to BF+DA executive director Debera Johnson.
Pratt’s first-year contribution to the project will tally $825,000, while the State of New York will provide $500,000, and the borough of Brooklyn has contributed $633,000 more. BF + DA expects to break even by the end of its second year and to be profitable in its third year, generating at least $250,000 in annual business. That will come from fees for small-run on-site apparel manufacturing, educational programs, private events, event space rentals and rent from venture fellows. At that point, a 10-year payment plan will be put in place to pay Pratt back for its investment.
The space includes an apparel lab with a sample development studio and small-run apparel manufacturing for production of up to 100 units. There is also a 3-D fabrication lab with 3-D printing and laser-cutting services, as well as the Sustainable Strategies Lab which encourages new ways of local sourcing, zero-waste production, and upcycling. However advantageous all of this stands to be for individual participants, Johnson hopes that collectively this concept of idea sharing and discussion could lead to new developments. While BF+DA was two years in development, Johnson said launching Pratt’s Incubator, as she did in 2002, helped to clarify what emerging designers need to get their business off the ground successfully. Suzanne Rae, Tara St. James of Study NY and Tiffany Burnette of Designhype are among the first-round participants who are expected to stay for two or three years. A 600-square-foot “step-out space” is being built so that once venture fellows are ready to break out, they can mentor new companies. In addition, there is an on-site store that offers shoppers not only the opportunity to buy freshly-made goods but to meet the designers and check out the rest of their collections.
Embedding sensors into clothing to regulate safety, or for health or weather protection reasons is one area of interest. A wearer’s health-related data could continually be made available to a physician who could monitor their health over time. “This is huge, unexplored territory that people are starting to take on. How we can connect information from your body to the Internet and to create something that protects you and helps you to be healthier is just one of the areas being explored,” Johnson said.
She also envisions a time when geolocators will be used in clothing, so that should wearers choose to, they could share access to information about where their clothes have been, providing opportunities for strangers with similar interests to strike up conversations. Discussion is underway about the potential to create 3D patterns that consumers could buy online and produce on their own, minimizing distribution, by eliminating the need for overseas production and domestic deliveries to retailers by trucks, said Johnson, who is also Pratt’s executive director for sustainable design studies.
To further engage the community, BF + DA will team up with a yet-to-be-named group to set up an apprenticeship program for 18- to 24-year-olds who live in the neighborhood. With a current staff of five, Johnson expects the accelerator to employ eight full-time Pratt workers, all of whom can put their benefits toward free tuition for themselves and their children at a New York City 12-school consortium — a perk Johnson can’t wait to see used. “That’s when I’ll really crack open the Champagne,” she said.